There have been plenty of debates between purists i.e. those who read physical/paper books and those who read digital books on their screens. Each side battles for their chosen format, and the arguments can go on for long. However, when it comes to audiobooks, these readers join forces and stand opposed to the audio format. ‘Listening’ is, after all, not the same as ‘reading’, they claim.
Until January 2020, I didn’t even consider audiobooks as a possibility in my life. While I was not opposed to them, I wasn’t sure if the reading experience transposed itself well to listening. But when the lockdown began and my chores increased, I wanted to see if audiobooks could help me “read” while performing routine tasks. What began as a curiosity has now turned into an essential part of my “reading”. I read physical books, e-books and audiobooks, and each provides me the same kind of happiness.
Reading is a highly-engaging task, making the mind absorb the words, create mental images and thus translate text to visualisation and perception. It involves various parts of the brain, and that too, at a higher cognitive level as it involves written information and its comprehension. Listening involves the same skills, the only difference being that instead of your eyes, it is your ears that are processing the information. Thus, though different parts of the brain are activated in these two processes, the mechanism, and the output is the same.
Consider how visually-impaired people read through Braille books. They “feel” and read. Isn’t that valid reading? Would they be castigated for using their fingers? Never. So if using fingers to assimilate information is considered valid, why not use ears to do the same? (On an aside, imagine how much easier life is for people with eyesight issues, now that they just need to plug in an audiobook and experience the same joy as we sighted people do through our books.)
Many of us might have heard bedtime stories from our grandparents when we were little. Think back on that experience. As the narration went on, didn’t you picture the scenes vividly in your head? Did you not laugh with the fairies and worry when the dragons appeared? As we grew older, we might have indulged in bedtime reading with our parents. Imagine the younger version of you tucked in bed, your mom or dad next to you, reading a book aloud while you tried to understand where the illustrations of the book fit in the story.
In both these cases, did we not understand the story because it was being read to us? No.
Did we fail to “see” the scenes in front of our eyes because we weren’t the ones reading the book? No.
You see where I am going with this? We are naturally attuned to narration even more than reading. Reading is taught to us in our childhood years. Listening comes to us inherently. Audiobooks tap into this dormant potential and help us to fit in more reading in our busy lives. They can be a veritable boon if you can get attuned to them. The best part of audiobooks is that they can be handled while multi-tasking. The narrator reads the book to us while we cook or clean or do some gardening or even drive. (I wouldn’t recommend the last option though.) Thus, audiobooks not just help us read more, but they also make tedious tasks go by fast.
Is listening to a book the same as reading though? I would have to say, ‘No’. While comparisons between paper books and ebooks are somewhat justified as both involve the use of the same sensory mechanisms, comparing reading paper/digital books with audiobooks is unfair and incorrect. Each format has its own advantages and disadvantages. If the purpose of both these formats is the same – to tell you the story, does the difference even matter?
When I started with audiobooks, I found myself facing the same problem as most beginners did: my mind diverted away from the story. It took me about two months to train myself to concentrate on the book being narrated in my ears while I continued my work. I found that listening to easy books in my favourite genres helped a lot in this “settling” period.
Today, after almost two years of listening experience, I know which audiobooks work for me and which don’t. I find audiobooks most beneficial for reading long tomes that would take me ages to read. Fantasy fiction, informative nonfiction, autobiographies and memoirs, epic sagas – all of these work well for me in audio format. (May change from person to person.)
If the topic of the book (especially in nonfiction) is esoteric, I make sure I listen at 1x speed so that I grasp the book well. For generic fiction, I can comfortably listen at 1.5x. I try not to go above that speed because the mission is not just to complete the book ASAP but to understand why the author chose to make certain plot decisions, and this doesn’t come out well at speeds of 2x or higher.
At the same time, audiobooks can turn out to be a pain too. I have had books with narrators who speak in such odd accents that I ended up concentrating more on the books than on my chores. I remember one narrator who was voicing a Swedish character, but her accent for him kept changing from Italian to German to Russian. I guess she too, just like I, had no idea what a genuine Swedish accent sounded like. Then there was this narrator who was simply brilliant and voiced every character wonderfully. One of those characters was a loveable autistic person whose name was Drove/Drow. (?!?!?) I wanted to mention this character in my review but wasn’t sure about how the name was spelt. (A common problem in audiobooks with culture-oriented names.) When I scanned through other reviews hoping that he would be mentioned somewhere, I discovered that the name was apna good old desi “Dhruv”. Oh boy!
However, nothing, I repeat, nothing, can beat the experience of listening to a steamy scene in audio format. Imagine trying to cook while the heroine is reaching a climax in your ears! Yikes! I try my best to ensure that I stay away from romances in audio form, but accidents do happen. I am just grateful that I hear these books on my earphones and not through Alexa. My family would be scandalised!
Anyhoo… Coming back to the question I have raised in the title of this write-up. Does listening to ‘Audiobooks’ count as reading? You would have guessed my response by now. The answer is a vehement ‘Yes’.
Both activities are equally good for your brain, both involve the processing of information, and both create the same pleasure. So whether you call it listening or reading, you are pursuing the same passion – books, you are patronising the same artist: the writer who conceived of and published a story. The device or format is immaterial.
Ultimately, if the world has more readers – whether they read through paper copies or digital devices, or audio versions, we all stand to gain. So let’s leave such needless debates behind and get back to our books, in whatever format we choose.
After completing her MBA in IT, Roshni worked as a project manager in a leading training company for more than a decade. Alongside, she dabbled as a freelance instructor, training students for various management entrance exams such as the CAT and the GMAT. She considers herself a teacher by passion and a techie by profession.
She bid adieu to the hectic corporate world in 2012 to focus on home and family and hobbies and volunteer work at the local church. Her passion for reading led her to create Readers Forever, a Facebook group aimed at all lovers of the written word, whether prose or poetry, full-length or one-liners. She also enjoys reviewing books and is currently among the top five reviewers of India based on the Goodreads Reviewer ranks.
Roshni is passionate about music and hopes to master playing at least one instrument someday.